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REVIEW: La Soiree | The Studio, Sydney

Australia just can’t get enough of the death-defying hijinks of this bawdy circus-inspired act. An extended season at the Sydney Opera House has plenty of return business — even our critic.

La Soiree | The Studio

Roll up, roll up, for the greatest show on Earth! Well, maybe not the greatest but, for my money, a whole lot edgier and more involving than the multinational Cirque du Soleil.

In my day there was The Moscow Circus, then the rest. The superlative. And the relative also-rans. Which isn’t to say the family big tops of old didn’t have colour character. La Soiree, though, shows circus-cabaret, with a touch of burlesque, has a whole new lease on life and circus, in the broadest sense, seems to be getting, well, broader. The humour’s often broad for a start (eg: “thanks for coming, if you did”).

Soiree doesn’t seem to have changed that much since last I saw it. Which is OK, as the content is extraordinary and well worth a second visit. I probably wouldn’t want it visited upon me a third time, however; notwithstanding my acute awareness that every minute on stage in this show represents an investment in training and rehearsal no mortal could bear. The “ever-changing line-up” could, in other words, be subject to a little more change, a little more frequently. Supposedly, it’s a daily selection; according to the chef’s whim, one presumes. Or producer’s.

Brett Haylock, Mark Rubinstein and Mick Perrin’s entrepreneurial stroke of showbiz genius certainly seems to have paid off, creatively and commercially. The vibe is pumped-up from the get-go, with blaring (and I do mean excruciatingly loud, as well as nostalgically distorted) brass band music. It inhibits meaningful conversation, while encouraging imbibing, if only to soothe strained, parched throats. It’s all in the interests of feeling good, one way or another. And La Soiree is the kind of show that can have you walking on air (like at least one of the performers) for days. Well, hours. It’s just the right bend of bizarre, athletic and raunchy. In some ways, of course, albeit on a much smaller scale, Soiree has rivalled, or echoed, the success of Cirque. It shot to the top of the circus charts with a bullet, after its emergence as La Clique in 2004. It became all-conquering, whether showing in Edinburgh (as it originally did), New York, London, Paris, Chicago, Montreal; or Sydney.

Anyway, proceedings couldn’t have gotten off to a better, more vibrant or delightful start than with Cabaret Decadanse, two world-class puppeteers in Serge Deslauriers and Enocke Turcotte, and their divas. The puppets are constructed of bits, bobs, rags and scraps, but look a million dollars. (The likes of Paris Hilton could learn a thing or two.) I’m not precisely sure which of their stable were making appearances on the night, but I think one of them may’ve been Lorraine, queen of the international nightclub scene and, let’s face it, she could be queen of the desert, too. Sequinned and siliconed, she writhes and pulsates; a fire-breathing, man-eating mama. She sizzles with sensuality and it’s this meeting-point of virtual reality with the ridiculous that makes Cabaret Decadanse so intensely pleasurable, since it’s laughable, loveable and danceable, all at once. Hell, if it isn’t better than sex, it probably runs a close second. CD is definitely worthy of a solo tour.

While, I understand, CD hails from Canada, Nate Cooper is, I think, a Kiwi. He’s a tease. His blacked-out tooth tells us he’s accident-prone. (Either that, or he drinks too much Coke.) He certainly looks it, all top-hatted, but wobbling ’round, precariously, on roller-skates. His juggling act is more about dropping his balls, so to speak, than keeping them in the air, so he only has to produce his knives to have you in stitches, because, obviously, should he prove as predictably inept with those, he’s likely to be in stitches too. As exaggerated as the act is, there’s a subtlety about the underlying comedic sensibility that’s rare; there’s a gentle kind of genius at work here.

Speaking of subversive jugglers, behold Mario, Queen of the Circus (Clarke McFarlane). That’s right, Lorraine isn’t the only queen in La Soiree. Mario’s accent seems to cross borders, from Italy, to France, to Spain, so it’s wise to wisecrack about it, as he does. Mario is obsessed with Freddie Mercury, so almost his entire act is built on and around Queen anthems, lending his segments an epic quality they wouldn’t otherwise have. He’s very clever and very funny and inveigles the audience to their feet, to deliver a swaying, rousing chorus of We Are The Champions. Seeing him awkwardly mount a unicycle with an unsuspecting country girl recruited from the audience (it seems dinkum) on his not-very-broad shoulders and waver such that he barely remains on the small centre stage is breathtakingly amusing; all the moreso when we learn Bree suffers from vertigo and Mario reassures her and us he’s only ever had one mishap, so he’s giving it a second go. To hold the energy, he crowd-surfs, to boot. Speaking of boots, his whole ensemble is leather, including a cropped, midriff-exposing bolero battle-jacket. If Fonzie was gay and proud, this could be his look. Or if The Village People were Neapolitan.

Juggling doesn’t get any more subversive than in the case of Chris and Iris or, rather, Chris of Iris. The dynamic German duo of the teetering on six-and-a-half feet tall Schlunk and petite Pelz couldn’t be more like Tarzan and Jane, only swinging from vines is so rudimentary, as compared with Chris’ cavalier girl-juggling. Iris is like a yo-yo, or beach ball, such is the ease and dexterity with which her male counterpart manipulates her. It gives a whole, new depth of meaning to the idea of trust between couples: the feats may not be quite life-or-death, but they do risk serious injury. Not that one is thinking about it too much, as this pair make it look as safe, sound and, implausibly effortless. Not that their flawless expertise makes it any less thrilling.

It having been a phenomenon that passed me by, in any active sense, as a kid, I recently succumbed to the temptation of a blue-and-silver striped hoop at Aldi. despite numerous valiant attempts and much Googled instruction, I still stand little chance of rotational virtuosity. Marawa’s hula hoopla puts me to shame. The fact is she can swivel 133 of the damn things at once. Truly. I kid you not. Marawa runs psychedelic rings ’round any other hoopstress. In terms of the design of the act, it’s spectacularly simple, simply spectacular and more than a little bit sexy. The human gyroscope can do it while rollerskating, too. Or even airborne. Yes, airborne. (Better yet, if you down load her free app, chances are you’ll be able to hoop like her. Well, a little like her.)

Hamish McCann is but one half of the double-act, The English Gents. I don’t know where the other one got to. But I suspect he might’ve been holed-up at the club, sipping twelve-year-old single malt from crystal, while reading his valet-ironed broadsheet and puffing on a hand-rolled Cuban. McCann, meanwhile, was rather more active. Sure, when he first appears, you could almost mistake him for a pinstriped, bowler-hatted, Lombard Street banker, but, as he progressively divests himself of his garments, revealing a musculature only seen in textbooks, you know you’re in for another kind of transaction. This bloke, as you’d expect, has a mighty pole, around which he propels himself, in the most genteel fashion. In contrast to the fat-bottomed rock or disco soundtrack of his colleagues, he walks, horizontally, on air, defying gravity, to the tune of Singing In The Rain. There’s no rain, but if there were, he’d be swinging in it. His movements are slow, deliberate, languorous; ‘though the phenomenal strength required to make it appear so must surely tax him to the limit, each and every time. With his superhuman abs, he’s a marvel.

Riverdance, for most of us, has become the butt of humour, so if you’re Irish why not exploit the fact by plucking out its beating heart and, posing as two loose-as-a-goose “Oirish” (even if one of them, Peter Harding, is Welsh), pound out the percussive fundaments (so to speak) of traditional step dancing on a table, while trying not to spill their beer. Why, it sounds like the sort of thing that could translate into a competitive sport, down under. As Up & Over It, Harding and Suzanne Cleary mercilessly rattle the foundations of Michael Flatley’s fleetfooted phenomenon, taking us back to the site of its likely origins, a Dublin pub. This is really good craic. The wonder is they don’t crack all the bones in their hands.

Everything about Captain Frodo is built for comedy. He inveigles with his warm, winning smile and modest, quietly spoken patter which, via irony, is charmingly self-deprecating, if self-deprecating can be charming. For example, when he knocks over a mike stand, or falls off the edge of the stage, he’ll compose himself and intone, ‘so far, so good’. When you look at him, you quickly realise the balding, moustachioed Norwegian can’t be the son of a Norse god. He is, however, the offspring of a Norwegian magician. Whether that puts him at an advantage, or otherwise, is for you to judge. The real secret of his success is his double-jointedness. Yes, he suffers from a condition that affords him hypermobility, to put it politely, in medically-correct terms. Though I’m not sure that it’s him that suffers, or us, as he pushes himself through unstrung tennis racquet heads, of twelve and then only ten-inch diameter. The process is excruciating to watch, but the smile is never wiped from Frodo’s implacably serene face. Later, he earns his stripes as a top-notch yogi, with legs behind his head, as he sits atop a small paint tin, supported by another, and another, and another, atop a grand piano. How did he get there? Well, that, too, has to be seen to be believed. And even then, you’ll have trouble.

If female whoops of enthusiasm were anything to go by, Berlin-born David O’Mer was probably firm favourite. Imagine Arnie as a brunette and better-looking and you start to approximate his chiselled visage. Of course, women have been known, I expect, to let their eyes dip below his neckline. Otherwise known as Bath Boy, O’Mer’s sultry act begins in a tub, from which he emerges to tumble and spin, suspended over it, on straps. Every so often he submerges, only to flick water all over those at ringside with a toss of his head. He’s like a frisky stallion strutting his stuff. Only frisky stallions don’t wear jeans that tight.

La Soiree is genuinely exciting. In so many ways.

The details: La Soiree plays the Studio, Sydney Opera House until March 10. Tickets on the venue website.

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